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Josh Fruhlinger
Contributing writer

What is hyperconvergence?

Mar 16, 20227 mins
Data CenterEnterprise StorageNetworking

Hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) combines compute, storage and networking in a single system. Enterprises can choose an appliance from a single vendor, or hardware-agnostic hyperconvergence software.

Credit: Thinkstock

Hyperconvergence is an IT framework that combines storage, computing and networking into a single system in an effort to reduce data center complexity and increase scalability.

Hyperconverged platforms include a hypervisor for virtualized computing, software-defined storage, and virtualized networking. They typically run on standard, off-the-shelf servers and multiple nodes can be clustered to create pools of shared compute and storage resources, designed for convenient consumption.

The use of commodity hardware, supported by a single vendor, yields an infrastructure that’s designed to be more flexible and simpler to manage than traditional enterprise storage infrastructure. For IT leaders who are embarking on data center modernization projects, hyperconvergence can provide the agility of public cloud infrastructure without relinquishing control of hardware on their own premises.

How does hyperconvergence differ from converged infrastructure?

Hyperconvergence adds deeper levels of abstraction and greater levels of automation to simple converged infrastructure.

Converged infrastructure consists of a preconfigured package of software and hardware in a single system for simplified management. But with a converged infrastructure, the compute, storage, and networking components are discrete and can be separated.

In a hyperconverged environment, the components can’t be separated; the software-defined elements are implemented virtually, with seamless integration into the hypervisor environment. This allows organizations to easily expand capacity by deploying additional modules.

What are the benefits and drawbacks of hyperconverged infrastructure?

Hyperconverged infrastructure promises to deliver simplicity and flexibility when compared with legacy systems. The integrated storage, servers and networking switches are designed to be managed as a single system, across all instances of a hyperconverged infrastructure.

The inherent management capabilities enable ease of use, and software-defined storage is expected to yield greater scalability and resource efficiency. Companies can start small and grow resources as needed. HCI vendors also tout potential cost savings in areas including data center power and space; IT labor; and avoidance of licensed software such as backup or disaster recovery tools.

The drawbacks of HCI come from being married to the fully integrated systems that you’ve purchased. You can’t upgrade individual components, which means that if, for instance, you need more storage you might find yourself buying a more powerful CPU at the same time. Ultimately, you might find yourself shifting costs rather than actually lowering them. HCI also limits your ability to reuse existing hardware that you’ve already invested in.

Hyperconvergence vs. cloud

You may be wondering what the distinction is between an HCI platform and the cloud. After all, both use software-defined management systems to pool hardware resources which can then be virtualized.

Both public and private clouds seek to make things easier for the user by putting a layer of abstraction between them and the compute resources they’re using. A wide variety of hardware and software could be supplying those resources behind the scenes.

HCI, by contrast, is aimed at making it easier for IT to provide services to users by standardizing and unifying the platform. IT should be able to easily deploy, maintain, and scale HCI infrastructure to meet an organization’s needs, but HCI doesn’t seamlessly scale up and down in response to user requests in real time the way the cloud can.

Which workloads are candidates for hyperconvergence?

HCI systems were initially targeted at virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) and other general-purpose workloads with fairly predictable resource requirements. Over time they’ve grown from being specialty solutions for VDI into generally scalable platforms for enterprise applications, database, and private cloud. Common workloads being run on hyperconverged systems include databases, file and print services, collaboration platforms such as Exchange or SharePoint, commercial packaged software such as SAP or Oracle, analytics, and Web-facing workloads such as LAMP stack or web servers.

A couple of key developments have made HCI more appealing for more workloads. One is the ability to independently scale compute and storage capacity, via a disaggregated model. The other is the ability to create a hyperconverged solution using NVMe — an open logical device interface specification for accessing non-volatile storage media attached via a PCI Express bus — over fabrics.

In general, there is a greater understanding of the value of HCI, “specifically for smaller enterprises that may not need [or] want a full-scale data center infrastructure, but want to retain some control over their environments,” says Sebastian Lagana, research manager, infrastructure platforms and technologies, at research firm IDC. (Read more: Hyperconvergence not just for specific workloads anymore)

“The increasing use of hybrid cloud environments by enterprises also lines up nicely with the software-defined data center story, which HCI is certainly a large part of,” Lagana says.

How is hyperconverged infrastructure sold?

Hyperconverged infrastructure is available as an appliance, a reference architecture, or as a software-only model. Bundled capabilities such as data deduplication, compression, data protection, snapshots, WAN optimization, and backup/disaster recovery differentiate vendors’ offerings.

HCI hardware typically comes in the form of an integrated appliance, a hardware/software package created and delivered by a single vendor. The major HCI software vendors are Nutanix and VMware, while hardware is dominated by HPE, Dell, and Cisco.

Appliance-based HCI arrives ready to use, offering vendor-guaranteed performance levels and requiring only minimal amounts of installation and configuration work. (Read more: Hyperconvergence hardware vs. software)

“Users don’t need to worry about the underlying hardware, as the vendor takes care of everything,” explains Darren Wright, president of D2 Technology, a New Castle, Del., IT consulting firm. “Because they are closed systems, the vendors have better control of the hardware, which eases troubleshooting and performance optimization,” he adds.

A software-only offering allows customers to deploy HCI on a bring-your-own-technology basis. HCI software vendors include Maxta and VMware (vSAN).

Advocates say that a software-based hyperconverged infrastructure approach offers greater flexibility.

“I can choose whatever server vendor I want, and even change server vendors at any time,” says Larry Chapman, IT infrastructure manager at Trusource Labs, a technical support services company that offers support for IoT technologies. “There’s no need to keep the same server vendor or even the same generation of Intel chipset.”

Chapman also likes that fact that he owns the software license. “We can transfer this license to a new server,” he says.

Software-based HCI products also can be configured to match a customer’s CPU, memory and storage needs without overprovisioning, says D2 Technology’s Wright. This allows adopters to easily scale up or out, which can make software-based HCI easier to manage and less expensive to operate.

Hyperconvergence market heats up, and transforms

Hyperconvergence is winning over enterprises that are drawn to its potential to ease management, streamline the deployment of new workloads, and optimize infrastructure costs.

If you need a sign that HCI is firmly established in the tech world, you can find it in the fact that Gartner has given the technology its own magic quadrant. Meticulous Research believes the HCI market will see a compound annual growth rate of 24% over this decade, hitting $42 billion by 2028.   

But the technology will change along the way to keep up with modern trends. We’re already seeing some vendors “disaggregating” their HCI offerings, which seems counterintuitive but takes advantage of virtualization to allow users to customize the components of their HCI stack, particularly storage.

HCI is also adapting to the containerization revolution that has seen developers building microservices that run on Kubernetes and Docker. While containerized apps were developed with the cloud in mind, HCI products can be great platforms too, and many vendors are now explicitly pitching themselves with containers in mind. Hyperconvergence does indeed seem to be here to stay.